x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hard lessons from oil industry accidents

The Life: The National asks Lord Cullen, the Scottish judge who authored the report on the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster that killed 167 men, why accidents in the energy sector keep happening.

The energy industry had to readdress safety issues following Piper Alpha. Dave Cauklin / AP Photo
The energy industry had to readdress safety issues following Piper Alpha. Dave Cauklin / AP Photo

The energy company BP has agreed to pay US$7.8 billion (Dh28.64bn) to the largest group of plaintiffs over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 men and released millions barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Such accidents are a reminder in the energy industry that safety requires a delicate balancing act, experts say.

During a visit to Abu Dhabi, Lord Cullen, who led the inquiry into the 1988 Piper Alpha tragedy - when a North Sea rig exploded and killed 167 of 229 people onboard - recalled some lessons learnt from that North Sea disaster.


q What has changed in safety in the energy industry since you wrote the Cullen Report?


a At the time of Piper Alpha, there was a huge sea change. The industry was not the same after it happened, and I think a lot of the lessons have been learnt. Nowadays they're moving into deeper and deeper waters, and these will have their own problems and they'll have to be solved.

What's the ideal approach to safety?

You're not simply concerned with following the rules and the procedures, but also making sure that you have an unhampered understanding of what they're about. Obviously, the implications of what you're doing matter. So that's what I mean by "competence added on top of compliance".

In the past two years, we have seen one of the worst oil-related accidents in history, and one of the worst nuclear disasters, with Fukushima in Japan. Why are these kinds of accidents still happening?

It's very difficult to understand it. It's almost as if you've tacked down the carpet in one place and it becomes loose somewhere else, which is frustrating. I can only speak to some extent as to what happened in the North Sea. There may be physical problems encountered elsewhere. There may be problems with contractors working satisfactorily with the main owners, and so on. I cannot give you any answer to that. These things happen. People should do everything they possibly can to prevent it happening. Certainly, sharing lessons around the world, making sure that company performance standards are universal, will do a lot.

Do you envision a future where we are accident-free?

There's no such thing as "no risk". There's no such thing as complete absence of accidents, because it's as inevitable as the sun rises that there will be accidents. Because if we try to aim for that, we're aiming for the impossible. What we can do is make sure we know what can happen, weigh it up, take steps on how to prevent it or reduce the risk of it happening to the lowest possible level.

* April Yee